Reading Ability and the Postsecondary World

Through our professional development sessions we have the opportunity to work with teachers all over the U.S.  Many high school educators have shared with us the disturbing belief commonly held by many of their students that reading is only a demand of an academic career.  Many students mistakenly believe that many career clusters and even basic citizenship demands are devoid of any significant reading demands.  A number of studies have shown this claim to be false.  The reading demands of the post-secondary world continue to rise across most career clusters and academic pursuits.

Here’s a little more evidence that even basic citizenship demands – like the ability to understand the President’s speech – require increased comprehension ability:

President Obama’s speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.

Tuesday’s night speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.  The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

A 9.8 grade level is already fairly low.  If even listening to the Presdient’s primetime address requires adequate facility with words and sentences, think how much more important reading comprehension is across all spheres of life.

Ending Text Free Zones

Here’s Laura Miller pointing to recent research on the danger of text-free zones:

A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete.  The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac, and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than unskilled father.”  Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed an average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.

Miller is arguing for the importance of introducing students to a wide variety of books at an early age.  A home full of reading materials sends a clear signal on the importance of reading and the premium placed on literacy.  And families at all income levels have access to public libraries. Free online tools like Lexile Find a Book allow students to create customized reading lists that suit their own tastes and reading level.  Admittedly, that is sometimes easier said than done.  As Miller writes:

…If you happen to be comfortable in bookstores or libraries- if you’ve been to them many times before and know what to expect, what you want and where to find it, or if you know whom and how to ask and feel entitled to bother the staff with your questions – it can be difficult to appreciate how intimidating these institutions of print culture can seem to someone who has little or no acquaintance with them.  I didn’t quite get it until I found myself wheedling a comics-loving friend into picking up issues of a comic book I wanted.  “I’m never going to go into a comic book store,” I told him.  “They’re confusing and the people who work there are so unfriendly.”

This is, of course, assuming that poor families have bookstores and libraries in their neighborhoods, and that it’s safe and easy for a child to walk to them alone.  Furthermore, a single parent working two minimum-wage jobs to keep food on the table may not have the time or energy to make a special trip between shifts…

Miller’s point is well taken.  But there are a variety of efforts underway to change that, to get books in the hands of children at all socio-economic levels.  We’ve written before on programs like Access Books , which to date has given away over one million books.  Our own Find a Book tool makes that effort more realistic as well.  Children without access to book retailers can still become familiar with the process of self-selection, of establishing their own tastes and preferences (remember: children in text-free zones are often at a loss to even know the sorts of books they like).  From there they can develop their own individualized reading list and utilize the public library to fill their home with books and to experience the love of reading that other children sometimes take for granted.

A Common Yardstick: Common Core Standards

In the June 13th edition of Education Week , Debra Viadero reports on the results of a newly released study by the Annie E Casey Foundation on the significance of getting children to read by the end of third grade.  The findings reveal the eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in predominantly low-income schools are failing to reach ‘proficient’ levels in reading on federal tests.

“The evidence is clear that those students who do not read well have a very tough time succeeding in school and graduating from high schools and going on to successful careers and lives,” said Ralph R. Smith, the executive vice-president of the Baltimore based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which released the report last month.

The foundation argues that many states, facing pressure to boost students’ scores on state exams, have lowered the proficiency bar.  Using NAEP as the measuring stick, 68% of all 4th graders scored below proficient on the 2009 tests.  Percentages ranged from Massachusetts at 53% to Lousiana at 82%.  This variation clearly underscores the need for a set of common performance standards as outlined by the Common Core Standards Initiative .

Creative Destruction and the New Digital Freedom

Here’s Clay Shirky offering some useful optimism against the idea that the internet is eroding the intellectual foundations of our most cherished institutions.  A number of writers have recently argued that the internet has diminished our professional and cultural norms, our understanding of what it means to be exemplary in a particular profession or vocation. Nicolas Carr, for example, has worried that the internet has not only changed the way we read by altering our ability to simply pay attention and process linear text, but that digital media  had profoundly modified the way we process information .  Carr’s caution goes beyond the effects the internet has had on our comprehension ability; Carr’s larger worry is over our insistence on immediate gratification and stimulation, on quick access to short snippets of information, an insistence that may very well have rendered us less contemplative, less thoughtful, unable to tolerate complexity or brook deeper, more meaningful thought.  Here’s Shirky summing up the fear that the young turks are threatening the fabric of our cultural norms:

Digital media have made creating and disseminating text, sound, and images cheap, easy, and global.  The bulk of publicly available media is now created by people who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media.

Instead, these amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions on incipient chaos and intellectual collapse

Shirky goes on, however, to remind that every new access point to media – whether it be print or the digital realm – is often met with much carping and hand-wringing by those most heavily vested in the old structure: (more…)

Cross-training: Not Just for Sports

A recent Sports Illustrated article detailed the work of Dr. James Andrews and his STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) campaign to curb sports injuries in children.  It turns out that stress fractures in cross-country runners, frayed ligaments in soccer players, and strained shoulders in tennis players make up half of all injuries suffered by kids in sports – a concern that a generation ago was nonexistent.  According to Andrews the primary culprit in the increase in injuries is sports specialization.  Andrews argues that children should be involved in more than one sport and should not play in more than one league in the same sport.

But cross-training applies to more than just sports.  By way of extension, reading Andrews’ work brought to mind Nell Duke’s recent research on the impact of the lack of informational text in a student’s reading regimen.  It turns out that many young readers are trained on a set regimen of mostly fiction text.  As a result, many become adept with fiction targeted to their level.  But when faced with informational texts many students struggle to comprehend what they’re reading, a fact that is reflected in international testing data.  Many international students perform higher than their American counterparts in tests of reading ability simply because they are able to handle different sorts of texts.  Duke argues (subscription required) that young readers should be trained to read across an increasingly diverse regimen of texts starting from an early age.  Think of it as cross-training.  Fortunately, the recently released Common Core Standards have emphasizes the importance of informational text and many states have already begun realigning their curriculums to better reflect increased emphasis on nonfiction text.

That’s good news.  In the same way that many students are cross-training across athletics as a way to prevent injury, it is our hope that the students begin to focus on a wide, diverse variety of reading demands as a way to increase their facility with multiple types of text – an ability that will allow them to maintain their advantage in an increasingly competitive world.

Preview of the New Classroom

In a preview of what future classrooms may soon look like, a local news affiliate is reporting on a middle school in Chapel Hill, NC that has provided every student with an iPod Touch.  Free use of the devices has been modified a bit – students do not take them home and certain sites, like Facebook, have been blocked.  But students are harnessing multiple applications through one device:

“Instead of having lots of resources, books, and dictionaries around, we can just go to the iPod Touch and research it,” said sixth-grader Emma Brodey.

There is no phone, music, or e-mail capability.  Students can surf the web…Students can also download podcasts or play math or word games.

The implications of these sorts of devices are staggering – from the ability to access multiple applications and resources, build multi-media projects, engage in targeted reading and vocabulary activities, or even receive instant tutorials on any topic – it is clear that digital content (and the tools used to access it) will change the way we conceive of classrooms and the way information is delivered.  It’s possible, in fact, to conceive of students accessing individualized text based on their own Lexile reading level.  Just imagine: every student reading on the same topic, the same information, but targeted at their own Lexile level.  That time may be here sooner than we think.

Making Reading a Part of Every Summer for Every Student

There has been a lot written recently on efforts to combat ‘summer slide ‘  By targeting the learning loss that occurs over three consecutive months of academic inactivity, parents and educators can help mitigate the pronounced effects of this summer slide.  Our own Lexile “Find a Book ” tool is an effort to do just that, to target students with reading material based on their own interests and reading level.

That’s why it’s good to hear of so many recent efforts designed to keep the educational spigot on during the summer months – from North Carolina, to Illinois, to Florida, to Oklahoma, and many more.  The Illinois Library Association and Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, for example, have already announed their summer reading program, a program that utilizes Lexile measures and “Find a Book ” as the primary tools for getting students to read over the summer.  Fortunately, local media outlets have heard the message and are helping get the word out to parents who may not be aware of the importance of summer reading or the free utilities available to help.  Here’s the Northwest Herald, in ‘Reading Must Be Part of the Summer ‘, making the message loud and clear:

Students who don’t read during the summer can lose up to 60 percent of their skills over a 2-month vacation, according to a study cited by the Illinois State Board of Education.

That’s why summer reading is so important for young people. (more…)

Balancing Their Diet

Last week’s issue of the Marshall Memo points to an important article in IRA’s The Reading Teacher .  In “Teaching Students to Comprehend Informational Text Through Re-reading ” (subscription required), Laura Hedin and Greg Conderman argue that there are several key steps in getting students to comprehend informational text, including considering context and promoting re-reading.  Hedin and Conderman also argue that choosing the right level of difficulty is vital when choosing informational texts.  Students comfortable with fiction may find themselves frustrated when faced with informational text as much as two grade levels above their reading ability.

Their suggestion jibes with our own research about the importance of targeting text.  After all, asking a student to ‘read harder’ when confronted with text at levels two to three grades higher is unlikely to produce the desired affect and runs the risk of associating reading – particularly informational reading – with frustration.  Fortunately, there are a wide variety of Lexile-linked resources , including tens of millions of articles on a wide variety of topics, that are available through many of the popular database aggregators in use at schools around the country.  These valuable resources allow educators to target readers at just about any level on most content area topics. (more…)

Fighting Summer Slide

Unfortunately, many low-income students have less access to print materials during the summer.  Limited access to reading material has often been cited as a significant factor contributing to academic summer loss – a loss that, when considered in aggregate over twelve years, goes a long way in accounting for the persistent achievement gap.  That’s why it’s exciting to hear that an experimental program across seven states is demonstrating that a $50 stack of paperbacks can sometimes do as much for a child’s academic fortunes as a $3,000 stint in summer school.

In a recent USA Today article, ‘Free Books Block ‘Summer Slide’ in Low-Income Students ‘, Richard Allington previewed a study that will be published later this year in Reading Psychology. Seventeen high poverty schools elementary schools in Florida were provided books for 852 students.  For three consecutive years each child was given twelve self-selected books.  Three years later, researchers found that those students had significantly higher reading scores, experienced less summer learning loss, and read more on their own each summer as compared to students who did not receive the books.

Access Books , a program founded by Rebecca Constantino, which to date has given away one million books, says that, “when kids own books they get this sense, ‘I’m a reader’.”  Her program has expanded from Richmond County, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina to eight more cities this summer.  The concept is simple, but shows how simple solutions, when applied in earnest, can sometimes mitigate complex problems.

This research lends support to the usefulness of our own tool, “Find a Book “.  “Find a Book ” was built around research demonstrating the powerful impact of allowing students to self-select books based on their own interest and targeted at their reading level.  “Find a Book ” is also linked to public libraries – making the process of acquiring self-selected summer reading lists available to everyone.  Now that summer’s here, be sure to check it out.

North Carolina Students Are Reading This Summer!

Building on the success of last year’s summer reading initiative , North Carolina State Superintendent June Atkinson launched the education department’s “Read NC ” literacy campaign.  This statewide effort encourages teachers, librarians, and parents to help children use Lexile measures and “Find a Book ” to select challenging and engaging books to read over summer break and throughout the year.

Studies show that children who read outside of school – and who grow up in active reading environments – demonstrate improved literacy skills.  According to Supt. Atkinson, “The “Read NC literacy campaign is about helping students find books that will interest them and assist them in improving their reading abilities even when they are not in the classroom.  Teachers work so hard during the year to build students’ literacy skills and we need to do all we can to make sure their progress is not lost during the summer.”

North Carolina was the first state to report Lexile measures. Today, students in grades 3-8, as well as high school students who take the English I assessment, receive a Lexile measure on their end-of grade or end-of-course test reports.  The Lexile measure and a link to the new “Read NC ” webpage are included at the bottom of students’ test results reports.

The “Read NC “webpage includes free resources to suppport children’s reading success in the classroom and at home, including a North Carolina version of the Lexile map and a link to “Find a Book “.  For more information – and to search for books using “Find a Book” – visit the “Read NC ” page.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.